Wednesday, September 30, 2009

the personal and the political - childcare

If there is one question that cuts the most closely against my flesh, it is "who will watch the children?". This question is both deeply personal - what could be more personal than my own children? - and deeply political as questions of childrearing cut to the core of feminism and capitalism.

Who will watch the children? Depending on whose version of history you look toward, childrearing was either performed unquestionably by a stay-at-home-mother or was more of a communal village affair. And depending on what class you are talking about, there is either a long history of nannies, or of mothers who stayed home, or of just scrambling to find safety and enough food as mothers had to work for pay just to survive.

The relationships and power dynamics created by childcare arrangements ripple through society. I've tried most all of it.

I've had college students as nannies. They were employees and I was unquestionably "in charge" of my children, but their level of long-term commitment was low, so there was a lot of turn-over and consequent turmoil in my child's life. This is the main problem encountered when childcare is valued at minimum wage, and children are left with a revolving door of caregivers and caregivers don't make enough to truly live on.

I've had my child in a large daycare, with "teachers" in charge of each "classroom" and a revolving door of assistants. The teachers took an attitude of being the "expert" and were very bossy toward parents, and I had to conform to their norms. When my child had special needs and a special diet, it was a huge hassle and he was frequently "accidentally" fed the wrong food. It was institutional, and no one child's needs could come first there. The teachers were paid enough to scrape by in the working class, and the assistants were not so they came and went.

Being a stay-at-home-mom, I was providing the best for my children. They thrived, and frankly I thrived too. But the power dynamic between my husband and me was different then, as I felt dependent on him. We also experienced financial stress and "provider stress" as he felt too much pressure to earn and worried about losing his job. In a society without a really good safety net, we both felt exposed and vulnerable in different ways.

When I ran a home daycare, I was somewhere between the "babysitter" and the "teacher". I was there to provide consistent care for my children while also making some money, but I had to compromise because in order to make enough money I had to take in more children than is ideal for each child to have their needs met. A home daycare provider may not even hit minimum wage until they get to six children, and they typically work 50 hours or more a week, because they care for children for longer than the parents' work shifts (travel time to and from is added on). A home daycare comes with no sick days, no back up, no lunch breaks (no potty breaks even). If things are good, children get an extended family and a consistent "second mom", but the trade-offs make this an unattractive career choice for most people.

Now I have a hobby nanny. This is the best possible arrangement for the not-rich mommy to make, as the hobby nanny is happy to watch the kids for less money than they can live off of. Usually, this option is only available to people who work part-time hours, as most hobby nannies would be unwilling to work 50 hours a week. A hobby nanny could be a grandmother, aunt, friend, or someone else that has an existing relationship with the family. I lucked out and found a wonderful lesbian couple who had been unable to have children of their own and was looking for a couple children to watch and enjoy part time. The drawback to a hobby nanny is that they will probably feel free to have a life outside of watching your children, in which case you will need to have enough flexibility in your job to sometimes watch the kids yourself.

With my hours, I also have a family member babysitting in the evenings. Family member babysitters are wonderful, if you have them. My children have the best relationship with their aunt, and I know that if anything ever happened to me they would be OK with their auntie.

Ideally, we would have a society where women could seek professional fulfillment if they wanted to. After all, the children won't be at home forever, and then what will you do? I currently have a job that I love, and I want to do this job even though I keep less than half of my take-home salary because it costs me so much to pay for childcare.

But how do we balance that fact, that childcare is so expensive it cuts into family's incomes too far and yet at the same time childcare workers don't make enough to live a decent lifestyle on what they earn? To me, the answer is simple - our society needs to subsidize childcare costs and provide some kind of financial security to stay-at-home-parents. Our children are the future of our society. It is just as important to provide early care as it is to provide later education.

Who is going to watch the children?

1 comment:

  1. This is definitely a discussion that we as a society need to partake of more often. We made a deliberate and very conscious decision to not have Em in daycare. The money I would earn would not be worth being away from my growing daughter, especially in her early years of first crawling, first walking, first talking. I would not have felt good knowing someone else had seen my daughter's first smile. But this does place the financial earning burden squarely on my husband's shoulders and it is a burden at times. Then it leaves me feeling guilty for loving my easy days (when they are easy) and debating on whether to just let her go to someone else and work on those hard days. We need to go back to a time of community living and life and extended families. We all watched out for each other and it was not a money thing. We are so unwilling to compromise our finanical material wants in exchange for what is truly important, the raising of our children. I would prefer to stay in our older smaller house that is need of repairs and watch our money and lessen our material possessions in order to stay at home and watch my child. It is indeed a heated topic, but needs to be addressed and thoroughly examined. Our priorities are not what they should be and we do not support our families and children enough. Thanks for bringing the topic up and putting it out there to ponder.